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2 Cloning Studies Could Mute Critics' Safety Fears

Science: Cattle in tests survived at rates similar to those born through accepted methods.

November 23, 2001|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When the House of Representatives approved a broad ban on human cloning this summer, some lawmakers argued for the measure on grounds that the procedure was clearly unsafe. In animals, they said, cloning produced unhealthy babies, "crippling deformities" and "horror stories."

Now that argument against cloning may be crumbling.

In separate announcements, two companies that have cloned dozens of cattle are about to report that the animals, if they survive birth, mature into adulthood and remain healthy at rates comparable to those of non-cloned cattle.

Although a huge number of clones still die in the womb, both companies say their experiences show that cloning methods are continually improving and that fears of birth defects may be overstated, at least in cattle.

Conclusions about one animal species may not be meaningful for another, and hardly anyone says cloning is safe enough to attempt to produce a child. But the two reports could force opponents of human cloning to rely on the argument that it is immoral or unnatural, rather than unsafe.

A small number of groups, including the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, say they oppose human cloning primarily on safety grounds and would have to reevaluate their opposition in the light of new data.

"The battle against cloning so far has been won on safety concerns," said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist. "If you start to diminish the safety concerns, then the ethics will have to carry that much more weight." The Senate is expected to consider the cloning ban early next year.

The new reports also may lend optimism to some researchers' hopes of using cloning to produce replacement cells and tissues for patients. The reports come as the National Research Council begins a study Tuesday of whether cloned and genetically altered animals can be used safely to produce food and pharmaceuticals. The study was requested by the Food and Drug Administration.

Survival Rates Compare With In Vitro Numbers

Concerns about cloning's safety have arisen amid laboratory reports of animals born with unusual problems, such as lung abnormalities, heart defects and misfiring immune systems. The problems have seemed unpredictable, possibly the result of random genetic mutations that arise during the cloning process.

In one study to be published in the Nov. 30 issue of the journal Science, the Massachusetts biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology Inc. reports on 30 cattle produced by cloning in the last four years. Six of the 30 died shortly after birth, and the 24 others have successfully grown to adulthood--at least 1 year old.

That means 80% of the cloned cattle survived to adulthood, compared with an 84% to 87% survival rate for cattle born through in vitro fertilization, a common reproductive technique that is widely considered safe, said Dr. Robert Lanza, a company official.

Of the 24 surviving cattle, the report says, all showed normal results in tests of blood chemistry, immune systems and physical condition, such as temperature and respiratory rate.

"We ran literally every medical test that's available. . . . We didn't observe any of the genetic defects or immune deficiencies that have been reported in the popular press" and by other scientific teams, Lanza said.

The second report will be presented Tuesday at the National Research Council meeting by Infigen Inc. of Wisconsin. The report has not been accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal, which generally is required for data to gain the highest level of credibility among scientists.

Michael Bishop, Infigen's president, said 85% of cloned cattle that survived birth grew to adulthood.

The company compared the health of about 100 cloned cattle of at least 2 years old with that of non-cloned cattle. "Were they sicker? They were not," Bishop said. "Did they require any extra management and care versus the non-cloned? No, they did not." He said growth rates and reproductive capacity were similar, as well.

But both companies said that an overwhelming number of their attempts at cloning failed, with animals often dying in the womb.

Cloning produces offspring that are genetic duplicates of a single parent. In traditional reproduction, by contrast, genes from two parents, carried by egg and sperm, are commingled to form a unique offspring.

Clones Have Traits of Only 1 Parent

In cloning, scientists start with a cell from an adult animal, often a skin or cheek cell. They place that cell inside an egg cell that has been stripped of its own genetic material. When the process works, it produces an embryo that has genes from only one adult.

The embryo is then transferred to a surrogate mother and carried to term.

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